Like most Americans, my spiritual quest began within the context of a sect of mainstream Christianity. My earliest recollection is Sunday school in Christian churches (Disciples of Christ) in St. Joseph and the small community of Gower, both located in northwest Missouri. In my teen years, I attended the Baptist church in Gower, where Beth and I were later married (1977) by a Unity minister. I have to confess that I regarded most of this church exposure merely as the result of parental expectations. Saturday was a day free from school. Sunday was a partially free day interrupted by dressing up to attend an event very low on my scale of interests. As a teenager, however, my interest increased and I began asking my minister questions about different aspects of the teachings.
I absorbed the fundamentals. I learned that I was a sinner in need of salvation, that Jesus died for my sins, and if I wanted to go to heaven when I died, I needed to accept him as my personal savior. I was baptized by full immersion in the Christian church. That rite of passage instilled some sense of immunity against known and unknown sins committed. Later, my parents moved us to the Baptist church. Each Sunday, the minister would issue an altar call, which felt as if he was addressing me personally. In private, I asked him if I should come up again. He explained that my baptism most likely did its intended job.
In those early years I accepted that I was, by default, a Christian. I was taught what it meant to be a Christian, and the duties and expectations involved. We were never exposed to the type of critical scholarship that explored the origins of the Christian doctrine. For me, that would come much later. Though my preference would have been to spend my Sunday mornings on the bank of a pond fishing, my Christian education served me in ways unexpected in my own ministry. I understood and could relate to the questions others had concerning religious issues.
What I learned in later years is that the entire Christian doctrine is not based on the teachings of Jesus, but rather on the letters of Paul and the evolving doctrines of the early church. While those who have not researched the historical development of scripture (and the Gospels specifically), will find this to be a shocking statement, I am quite comfortable making it. Why? Because mainstream Christianity teaches that the kingdom of God is coming some day in the future. I believe the evidence shows that Jesus regarded the kingdom of God as a present reality that could not be observed with the eye, but could be experienced intuitively by the common people who followed him. “Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, ‘The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you’” (Luke 17:20-21).
Paul and the early church pressed the figure of Jesus into a type of religious service that I do not believe he would have endorsed. I base this statement on what I call the presence of a mystical thread that runs through the parables and sayings attributed to Jesus. This thread is often obscured by the voices of the evangelists who produced the New Testament writings. Paul’s letters, written in the mid-50’s A.D. came first, followed by the Gospel of Mark, written sometime after 70 A.D. Matthew and Luke used Mark and other sources (Q, M, L) as the basis of their work. John (100 A.D.) drew from entirely different sources (The Gospel of Signs). By the time these people began to write, the oral tradition around Jesus had developed into the larger-than-life image of him that we have today. As a minister who has taught spiritual principles for over four decades, it has become very important for me to understand who Jesus was and why and how he was transformed from a healer and teacher of spiritual principles to the messianic figure, the only begotten son of God we know today.
The reason, I find, is very simple. Jesus, the historical figure, did not fulfill the expectations that should have accompanied the advent of the Jewish messiah. Nothing changed after his death. If anything, life for the Jews became much worse. Jerusalem and the Temple were completely destroyed by the Romans some forty years after his death (70 A.D.). His followers, all Jewish, needed to know why, if he was the messiah, did he not put this enemy of Israel, the Roman occupier, under their feet. Turning to their scriptures for answers, they found meanings that they believed shed new light on his death. His sacrifice for the sins of the world, resurrection, and the promise of a second coming emerged as the result. In other words, the doctrines that lay at the heart of the Christian faith are the answer to why Jesus did not usher in the kingdom of God during his first visit. He would return to complete the mission. In the meantime, followers must remain watchful.
It is important to understand that we do not have a formal gospel according to Jesus. My belief, which I’ll address in another post, is that the parable of the lost son (prodigal) best represents his gospel. We have Paul’s letters and we have gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, all of which were written anonymously. I cannot imagine that Jesus’ immediate followers would have considered the good news a futuristic promise of the coming kingdom – now at two-thousand years and counting. The problems of daily life were the issues that needed a solution. The principles he taught were geared toward helping people open their mind to their divine source that would intuitively guide them, as with the birds and wild flowers, to the acquisition of their daily bread. Such a practical message, stripped of the doctrinal constraints often used to control, would, in my opinion, account for his appeal. “They [teachers of the law and Pharisees] tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them” (Matthew 23:4).
The church has made Jesus the only way to God. Jesus himself taught that the way to God is found in quiet moments, with doors closed to the distractions of the world (Matthew 6:6). This simple and very accessible approach is a narrow gate pursued by few, as the masses clamor for fulfillment through the wide gate of an easily distracted mind. The transforming value of the mystical thread is neither seen nor understood by those who are looking to the heavens, or to people, places, and things, for their savior to appear. The mystical thread, I believe, is the stone rejected by the builders of church doctrine, but which served as the cornerstone of the ministry of Jesus.
In the next post I will explore the principles that help us identify the mystical thread.